Seoul Sisters 

Grandma knows best at this homey Korean restaurant in Hayward.

Buried deep within the thicket of auto dealers and repair shops on Mission Boulevard in Hayward is a strip mall whose concrete blocks are painted a shade somewhere between eggshell and mustard. Happily, its tenants are not so dreary: There's a gay bar, a bustling pho place, and the Sister's House, a small Korean joint that specializes in soup and barbecue.

There are no siblings at the Sister's House; the name is just an artifact of previous owners. Instead there is a mother (she's also a grandmother) — Yeong Ja Lee, chef and owner — and her Realtor daughter Jenny Yoo, who is waiting tables until the market turns around. Lee's cooking is fresh, comforting, and generously portioned, as might be expected from somebody who previously ran a place called Grandma's Restaurant.

The quality and diversity of Lee's banchan — a cornucopia of tiny plates that appear and overwhelm the table shortly after you place your order — is a trusty indicator of the meal to come. Count on ten or more options at dinnertime, all exuberantly flavorful and made in-house: cabbage, radish, and cucumber kimchi; sprightly strips of fish cake; bean sprouts tossed in sesame oil; potato salad; and cute little dried anchovies, crisp and sweet, staring blankly up from their bowl. Depending on the day, you might also get wedges of fried tofu, tender baby octopus, mild green chiles bathed in red pepper paste, or my favorite, chilled white blocks of mung bean jelly.

Many of the entrées are served family style, so it pays to go with a group. Ordering appetizers may seem beside the point when you'll soon be elbow-deep in pickled vegetables and sizzling stoneware bowls, but this is not the time for restraint. The huge, piping-hot seafood pancake (hae mool pajun) is toasty on the outside, creamy within, and stuffed with shrimp, squid, crab, octopus, and handfuls of scallions. There are a couple of dumpling options: the small and fried variety, or those that are big and steamed, as soft and voluptuous as a certain secretary on Mad Men. A never-quite-big-enough bowl of soy-sesame sauce goes nicely with everything, including those last remaining bits of rice that you may want to Hoover up before the check arrives.

Service is really friendly, but the ladies can become a bit ... uh, maternalistic when it comes to ordering. On three separate visits, they tried to talk me out of dishes they assumed I wouldn't like, then lingered nervously nearby until I took my first bite and gave them the thumbs-up. If you aren't Korean, be prepared to defend your choices unless you're craving "safe" standards like barbecued chicken.

Interestingly, nobody challenged my desire for sun dae, blood sausage stuffed with clear noodles. It's served alongside thin slices of pig's liver, rubbery little strips of pig's ear sprinkled with black pepper, and a salt-chile dipping mix. The platter is all about contrasts: the sausage is delicately flavored and tender — the liver is mealy and pungent, and the ears are 100 percent texture, a porcine cartilage chewing gum. It's definitely drinking food, best washed down with soju or a crisp OB beer.

Jenny mentioned that customers come from far and wide for the rich and satisfying goat stew (yum so tang), available in a giant casserole or individual portions. The roiling red broth, filled with tender bits of meat and greens and topped with perilla seeds, grows more peppery and complex as you make your way to the bottom. Another dish to try is the naengi dwen jang jjigae, a fermented soybean paste soup made with crab, zucchini, onion, and shepherd's purse, a weedy relative of mustard greens with a similarly plucky flavor.

A big bowl of yul moo naeng myun, or buckwheat noodles in cold, tangy broth made from young radish kimchi, helps shake off the late summer heat but lacks a certain zing all by itself. Pair it with juicy gal bi, barbecued marinated short ribs, to balance the noodles' slippery chill. The Sister's House doesn't offer in-table Korean barbecue, which is a plus if you don't want your clothes to reek of charred meat after the meal, but a bummer if you prefer hands-on grilling (otherwise known as "paying to cook your own food" among some of my crankier friends).

Drink options include the usual assortment of soju, plum wine, Korean beer, red and white wine, soda, and tea. Don't shy away from black raspberry wine (Bohae Bokbunjajoo) even though the name alone might give you Boone's Farm flashbacks. It's nicely balanced and not too sweet. Warning #1: It goes down easy. Warning #2: There is a karaoke bar directly across from the restaurant. Just saying.

The homey vibe extends to the decor, which is unremarkable unless you're impressed by a TV that's permanently tuned to a Korean channel and soju posters featuring winsome, windswept girls. "Korean restaurants are so much work," sighed Jenny during one of our visits, and as I surveyed our table covered with piles of banchan dishes, heavy bowls, bottles, doilies, spoons, chopsticks, and sodden place mats, I was inclined to agree. To fight fatigue, the ladies gather in a back booth and take a load off during slow periods. On one quiet, oppressively hot afternoon, we caught Grandma Lee in a little catnap. Can you blame her?

Exhausting though it may be, Lee loves to cook and serve her customers, and it shows. Order dol sot bi bim bop, a colorful array of vegetables, egg, and sliced beef or seafood arranged over steamed rice, and she'll come equipped with two squeeze bottles to finish it tableside, artfully looping swirls of thick chile sauce and sesame oil over the top.

"Now you mix," she instructed my boyfriend as his bowl sizzled merrily away. He tried. She watched. Shaking her head, she finally grabbed the chopsticks and took over, methodically tossing the contents with the easy grace of a seasoned chef and a touch of grandmotherly TLC. It may be called the Sister's House, but it's easy to see who's really running the show.


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